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BlogSeptember-October, 2012
Thoughts on Gore Vidal's Lincoln

Not long ago I was workshopping a short story in which the young Abraham Lincoln is a key character.

The story takes place in Illinois (Springfield and New Salem) in the 1830s. In one scene, Lincoln and some other politicians watch a pair of women slip in the mud while trying to cross the street -- and promptly crack jokes at their expense.

Someone in my workshop asked: Why didn't Lincoln help them up? Would the Abe Lincoln really have stood there, laughing?

This is why historical fiction is hard to write. Based on what we know of the young Lincoln, it is entirely believable he would've stood there giggling. But when many readers think of Lincoln, their minds go on autopilot. They consider him a hero. They expect him to behave like a legendary president, rather than what he was in the 1830s: a politically astute young man who'd never pass on the chance to bond with his peers through humor.

I'll always love Gore Vidal's Lincoln because of the way it unabashedly portrays the title character -- warts and all, but with plausible historical accuracy. I sometimes wonder if Vidal had to endure meretricious questions from his editors at Random House. Here's a quick dose of the Lincoln we come to know through Vidal's novel:

"For several years Washburne, stout and rosy, had been urging Lincoln to eat more, if only to cure himself of a constipation so severe that he seldom moved his bowels more than once a week" (9).

"About 1839 or '40, Speed was keeping a pretty woman in Springfield, and Lincoln, desirous to have a little, said to Speed, 'Speed, do you know where I can get some?' and Speed said, 'Yes, I do and if you'll wait a moment, I'll send you to the place with a note....Lincoln told his business, and the girl, after some protestations, agreed to satisfy him. Things went on right. Lincoln and the girl stripped and went to bed" (288).

"They say there's a lot of syphilis here, thanks to the army and all. God knows there was a lot of it in Illinois back in the 'thirties, when Lincoln had it" (290).

"Lincoln turned his cloudy gaze on the large man, a minister from New York. 'The aspiration of men is to enjoy equality with the best when free, but on this broad continent not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours'....Although Lincoln had a true hatred of slavery, as much for the brutal effect it had on the masters as on the enslaved, he was unshaken in his belief that the colored race was inferior to the white" (356).

***

Back in May, at Grub Street's outstanding Muse & the Marketplace conference, I went to a terrific talk by Thomas Mallon. Mallon described a few schools of historical fiction. One of them, which Vidal's Lincoln embodies, is what you might call "accurate." These books are thoroughly researched, and the idea is to make the story believable. Then there are what you might call "campy" historical fictions: Whimsies like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which aim for fun and frivolity from the first and which lean far more on authorial imagination than genuine homework.

What I'll always treasure about Lincoln is how firmly rooted it is in fact. Quoting Vidal's afterward: "All of the principal characters really existed, and they said and did pretty much what I have them saying and doing, with the exception of the Surratts and David Herold...."

To read Lincoln is to ruin yourself for half-assed forays into historical fiction. To this day, I get headaches from Don Lee's Country of Origin, which is, to be fair, a highly decorated novel from a well-respected author. But I will never forget hearing Lee read from the novel at the Wordsworth bookstore in Harvard Square. One attendee challenged Lee on his depictions of Japan in 1980. Lee admitted to the audience that he was far more concerned with crafting a well-paced mystery than with believably recreating the Japan of 1980. It just didn't matter to him.

As I skimmed the novel, I noticed that Lee had named a character Doug Marabelli. The name caught my attention because, at the time, the Red Sox had a player named Doug Mirabelli. So I asked Lee: Did you actually name a character after a backup catcher? And he admitted to it. He wasn't even remotely ashamed about it either. In no way did it crimp his aesthetic.

And that's fine. Different strokes for different authors, and all that. If my debut, Zinsky the Obscure, is half as successful or acclaimed as Country of Origin, I'll be elated. But...when I think about Vidal and the thrills he provided me as a reader, I'll always appreciate the way that Lincoln was both a page-turner and a testament to the role research can play in the creation of a masterpiece.


Ilan Mochari is the author of the novel Zinsky the Obscure (Fomite Press, 2012). His short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Keyhole, Stymie, Ruthie's Club and Oysters & Chocolate.
In 2009, he received a Literature Artist Fellowship grant from the Somerville Arts Council. He is a former staff writer for Inc, and he has also written for Fortune Small Business and CFO. He has a B.A. in English from Yale University.

 
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